THE COMIC BOOK REVIEW OF -- "MALEFICENT"
Retro-Active Continuity: Comic books have had ret-cons for a long time now. According to the Internet's source of all truth, Wikipedia, we first saw it in a comic book in 1983. A couple decades later, Gregory Maguire would apply one to "Wizard of Oz" and give us "Wicked," which would spawn a quite popular Broadway show of some note.
What can you add to the story of "Sleeping Beauty," on the other hand, to turn it inside out and cast Maleficent as, sort of, the good guy in the film, and Sleeping Beauty's father as the bad guy?
Give that idea to Linda Woolverton, and it can work in "Maleficent." That's right, the woman who wrote "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King" gave this one a go and, I think, successfully inserted enough events to make things feel like a natural extension of the original animated movie.
(Woolverton also wrote an episode of "Chip N Dale's Rescue Rangers" and a two-parter of the original "My Little Pony," along with a smattering of other '80s cartoons. It's quite the resume.)
How Little, Not How Much: It's an entertaining movie, and Angelina Jolie steals every scene she's in. Given her top billing and star nature, she has relatively little dialogue in the film. The trick is, she milks every line for maximum effect. She gets a trailer moment just for how she says, "Well, well," for goodness' sake.
How many dialogue-heavy comic books could be strengthened by having one character who talks less? It's tougher to do in comics where you can't sell the delivery in the same way a movie does. You don't have an actor vie interpreting a line and stressing the proper syllables. The letterer can add in some tricks to emphasize some part of the dialogue, but that'll only take it so far. It takes an artist who can sell a gesture or a pose or a look in a character's face to make a three word utterance into a chilling moment. It's an odd combination of restraint and power that would be needed to pull that off. Most artists couldn't do that, I don't think.
There is no comic book adaptation of "Maleficent" that I know of, but it would be interesting to see what a strong artist might do with some of these lines. Could the artist replicate the twinkle in Maleficent's eye or the icy coldness to her dialogue? Could the same artist turn around in the next panel and show Maleficent's softer side as she takes care of Aurora in lieu of those blithering fairy godmother idiots who were supposed to be doing that job? It's asking a lot.
Even the Leaves Aren't Real: A lot more of the movie is faked than you might otherwise think. A simple scene set at the edge of a farmer's field of crops is more than half blue screen. There's about six feet of crops in the front, and everything else in the background is CGI.
You know that the sight of fairies flying alongside crazy creatures and impossible scenery is all in the computer. You know those perfect sunset skies are a fake. But that second row of soldiers in the battle scene? That mountain in the far background wasn't B Roll from Iceland?
It brings us back to the whole reason why the superhero movie genre is even possible these days. Movies at last have the technology to create the kind of imaginative scenarios that previously were only possible in comics. Comics are still a lot cheaper to produce, so it'll always be easier to experiment in twenty-page, monthly segments, but movies can be made believably now with all of the same flair, style, and over-the-top special effects.
The biggest problem movies have, I think, is with going too far. "Lord of the Rings," for example, blended classic movie-making tricks with modern computer firepower to give us the best of both worlds and an awesome production. "Maleficent" relies more on the special effects and the color grading to pull it off, but remains so consistent and polished with it that you'll buy into it and enjoy it all. When the behind-the-scenes stuff on the Blu-ray points out things that you took for granted were real but were actually CGI constructs, you know they've done their job well.
In comics, as long as things are internally consistent, we'll take any combination we can get, including cartoony characters in front of photorealistic backgrounds, or vice versa. Those combinations aren't as easy to pull off in movie theaters. Frank Miller can handle it well in his comics, but translating it to "The Spirit" or "Sin City 2" proves more questionable.
Cut Your Darlings: The Deleted Scenes selection on the Blu-ray is sparse. They didn't need to cut that much stuff out so late in the game. And even what they cut provides a good lesson in cutting to the bone. Two of the scenes feel like unnecessary set-up that ruins that pay-off's surprise factor. The weakest part of the film is Maleficent's boyfriend-turned-arch-enemy, Stefan; giving him more screen time to be slightly creepy in the king's bedroom is more than we need.
Worse, King Henry's dialogue is so dark that it makes him less sympathetic and more evil than he needs to be. Removing that scene kept him more nebulous, making his hatred for the fairy world feel more like a dottering old man maintaining tradition and less like the mean petty jerk that scene makes him.
Another scene has Maleficent's bird, Diaval, asking when she's going to release Aurora from the spell. It's a nice bit of character to have him challenging her, but it makes her eventual decision to attempt removing the spell seem like his idea. Her activity there then becomes a fait d'accompli, and a weaker character moment.
I bet there are samples of this in a comic you read this week. I'm sure there's a scene in this week's Part two of six storyline that can be removed without any harm being done to the scene. Maybe it's just a panel, a couple of favorite lines of dialogue that don't go anywhere or that, worse, foreshadow a surprise too obviously. Planting the seeds is good. Planting the seeds, pointing to them, and then shouting for all the world to hear that the plant is going to grow right there is too on the nose.
Oh, Yeah, About That Blu-Ray: The "Maleficent" Blu-ray is in stores now. It's a beautiful presentation for your home theater, handling some incredibly busy scenes (particularly near the end) without losing crispness. It's as we should expect from home releases these days: No pixilation, no blurring, no halo effects. Even when dragons are moving fast and breathing fire, everything is clear. It's a great looking disc.
The sound is 7.1, which sounds strong on my 5.1 system. I'll leave it to more geeky audio folks to let me know if those extra two channels sound good to them.
I'd probably be disappointed by the lack of a 3D disc if I had a TV that could handle it, but I'll leave that as something for others to fight. Disney, for some odd reason, likes to withhold 3D discs from the States, releasing them in the U.K., instead. That doesn't bode well for those looking forward to a 3D Blu-ray of "Big Hero 6" next year... Shockingly, the 3D version of "Frozen" is the one dollar Disney hasn't milked from that movie. Baffling.
So, yes, "Maleficent" is a good movie. It's a fun play on the classic "Sleeping Beauty" animated movie, which we could probably do a whole other column about someday for the way it stages its scenes and delivers beautiful "panels" of storytelling.
THE EPIC "ALL STAR BATMAN AND ROBIN THE BOY WONDER" RE-READ, Episode Two
Batman and Dick Grayson spend the entire issue in the Batmobile chatting until they become Batman and Robin.
Meta Note:I refer to these issues as "Episodes" because that's how the title pages refer to them. I'll go with that convention for these purposes. If you don't like it, blame the book's editor, Bob Schreck.
The Chase: Car chases are notoriously hard to do in comics. Even in films, they're difficult; that's why the good ones stand out so much. Check out "The French Connection" or "Ronin" or "The Rock" for some examples of how to handle a car chase in a movie. In comics? Can't think of too many.
I think Peter David wrote one for an issue of "Wolverine" back in the day. I'm sure Chuck Dixon wrote two or three during his years on the Bat titles. And didn't Greg Rucka write a good one for Rick Burchett in "Detective Comics" during his tenure there? I've never seen Alex Toth's Hot Wheels comics, but I bet there's one or two in there. They're few and far between, though.
Artists don't like drawing cars, usually, and staging something as complicated and as movement-intensive as a car chase is out of the question on a monthly comic.
Jim Lee gets to draw the ultimate comics car chase issue here. It's filled not with multiple panels to indicate motion, but with bold splashy images to give you the high points of the chase between Batman and the Gotham Police Department. The bulk of the action is actually told inside the car, though. It's the reaction of Dick Grayson to the madness his life has just become that carries the issue, but it also manifests itself in the bodies being jostled around the car as Batman drives with what feels like reckless abandon. You can feel Grayson's moments of horror as he braces himself for the next part of the roller coaster ride Batman is taking him on.
The Talk: The car chase, though, is just set dressing for what this issue is all about. This issue is about Batman indoctrinating the grieving Dick Grayson into his crime-fighting cause. It's about convincing Grayson to become Robin, even if he doesn't quite know what that name is or what that role entails just yet.
It culminates in a 12-panel page and two 16-panel pages, as claustrophobic on the page as the confines of the Batmobile must have seemed to young Grayson. It's about a boy who's used to flying high on the trapeze now being strapped into a car that can transform and is controlled by a grown man in a Bat Suit with a crazy sense of humor.
Grayson, as it turns out, is a head strong individual. He's not going to give Batman any easy answers. He doesn't trust him yet, for good reason, but there are also times he feels like a petulant 12 year old boy. That's exactly what he is. You could almost imagine him doing a fart joke somewhere in this conversation and making it sound perfectly in character. That's what boys do.
He also freaks out at the Batman, at the situation he's in, and at how the whole world has just turned out to be a lie: His parent's won't be there for him and the police are corrupt and out to kill him.
But you can also see his mind turning in the final pages, as he realizes that as nutty as his life is now, maybe this offer from Batman makes sense for him. Maybe this is something he can do? Maybe it makes sense? It's just crazy enough that it could work.
Oh, if only he knew what Batman had in store for him for training next. We'll get to that in a couple of weeks...
The Batman: Batman is single-minded in his determination to fight crime with every tool he can put on his belt. He sees Grayson as the next weapon he can wield. Internally, he's working out how to best lure Grayson to his side. He feels an obvious kinship, having had his parents die in front of him in the same way, but now he needs to put his hard-@$% hat on. He needs to show tough love to Grayson. He doesn't need to tell him that the world is a cruel place. Grayson just saw that. Now he needs to convince him that fighting crime by his side is the only way to make the world (a) a better place and (b) make sense. It's all about "The Mission."
Frank Miller has crafted a character that is single-minded above everything else. It's a very strong characterization, but one that is also presented with some nuance and dimension. Batman fights with himself over how to handle Grayson, and he's often frustrated that Grayson isn't already on his side and that he acts like a 12 year old boy. It creates the comedy of the issue from the characterization. Here's this creature of the night who's fighting with a person he sees as the next tool he can use to fight "The Mission."
Then again, he's also a wild maniac. He's loving this entire car chase. He's mad with power and laughing hysterically as he plows through cop cars, jumps over bumps in the road, and flies into the clouds as the Batmobile transforms itself into a flying machine.
Some of it is theatrics. Grayson recognized the Bat-voice as being an imitation of Clint Eastwood. It's the same way we all today recognize Kevin Conroy's excellent Batman performance as having two distinct voices -- the other being for Bruce Wayne.
He's also full of himself. This is the issue where he breaks out the "GD Batman" label on himself in classic third person form. But, then, you'd have to be a cocky self-sure kind of guy to pull off what Batman pulls off with regularity. Miller focuses on that trait and elevates it.
If you want the reserved creature of the night who's a deep analytical thinker, who keeps to the shadows, and whose biggest tactic is a subtle fearsome visage, you're not going to like this book. Miller imbues Batman with youthful exuberance, trading on all the worst angles of the darkest corners of his personality. It's a lot of fun to see those more subtle corners brought into the forefront and then amplified to great comedic (and dramatic) result.
Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride. It won't be comfortable at first and you'll probably overthink it. Get past that, and you have a series that's as fun as any superhero comic from the last ten years. Just wait 'til you see what he does to Green Lantern in a few issues...
Vicki Vale Redux: Vicki Vale shows up for a four-page scene early on. I said last week that I didn't think she did much for the series. Reading this issue again, I can see where she's meant to go -- she's the pain in the butt who's seen too much and knows too much about Batman. Alfred dances spryly to distract her from thinking about it, or to believe that she hasn't really seen what she really saw. He also has to use his medical training to keep her alive after the incident at the end of last issue.
Next Issue: Black Canary takes over for most of the issue, and the Batmobile continues to show its transforming capabilities.
And Next Week: The McSpidey Chronicles return!!